After 9 weeks into the NFL Season, the playoff contenders usually separating from the bad teams. The NFC has certainly done so, with 4 of the 6 playoff spots almost a lock at this point. In the AFC, you can bank on 3 teams making the playoffs and the Wild Card race is much more open. The next four weeks will go a long way in determining who are the Super Bowl contenders in both conferences although I'd have New England, Cincinnati, Carolina, and Denver as my four teams for now. Here is the updated spreadsheet. These are the the top 10 teams in the NFL right now:
- New England Patriots 8-0
- Carolina Panthers 8-0
- Cincinnati Bengals 8-0
- Denver Broncos 7-1
- Green Bay Packers 6-2
- Arizona Cardinals 6-2
- New York Jets 5-3
- Minnesota Vikings 6-2
- Atlanta Falcons 6-3
- Pittsburgh Steelers 5-4
Once again, the Patriots come in at #1. Despite dropping from 83 to 79 on offense thanks to a couple turnovers, the Patriots still have the league's best offense by a considerable margin. The Patriots are still the best team in the NFL in Points Per Drive (2.98), Turnover % (5.4), and Scoring % (54.3) while being 2nd in yards per play (6.3). The Patriots will be facing two tough defenses in hostile environments without Dion Lewis, so that could be a real test for the offense. I suspect the Patriots will still average well above 30 points per game and 2.5 Points Per Drive over that span. I would like to see the team improve their Red Zone and Goal to Go Efficiency over that stretch, they're not exactly blowing away opponents in that area recently.
Their defensive ranking improved from 13th to 10th in Week 9. Even if you include the garbage time stats, they are 7th in Points Allowed per drive (1.54), 7th in Yards Per Play (5.3), and 2nd in Scoring % (28.7). One area that works against the Patriots defense comes on situational downs. The Patriots haven't been as resistive on 3rd downs or in the Red Zone. The Patriots won't be facing too many tough offenses during the rest of their regular season schedule although you do get a bit concerned when they do reach the playoffs. In the AFC, the only two offenses that I think could give the Patriots a lot of trouble are Oakland and Pittsburgh's. If the Patriots defense continues to progress at the rate they have all season, it's going to be a fun postseason.
The Patriots still hold the title for top special teams unit in the NFL, primarily due to the fact that they cover punts and kickoffs extremely well. On the return side, they aren't doing much with the kick or punt returns. Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, and Brandon Bolden have done a great job at covering those kicks and limiting the return yardage when opponents attempt to return them. That type of coverage is why the Patriots have the 2nd best Field Position grade, just behind the Cincinnati Bengals. Hopefully when the weather gets colder and the wind becomes more of a factor, the Patriots can dial up the return game.
The gap between the Patriots and the #2 and 3 teams seems to be shrinking, but I do think the Patriots will reach the Super Bowl if they can clinch Home Field Advantage. The biggest obstacle right now is the Denver Broncos, since they've all but clinched the AFC West. I'm not sure what Cincinnati will do the rest of the way, but the Patriots will need to go at least 13-3 to get the top seed. For this week, their next opponent is the 15th ranked Giants who I think the Patriots can take full advantage of since they match up well on both sides of the ball.